I was 45, lots of energy, but no passion for a new activity… the weight had started to slowly stack up. I did a half-hearted run now and again which stemmed the decline but wasn’t enough to get me trim. I’d always had a bike, mainly of the off road variety but again this had always been used in adulthood as another half-hearted gesture to extract myself off the settee and away from the biscuit tin. Passing Halfords one day I decided to pop in for inspiration and there, at half price was a shiny yellow Carrera TDF road bike and I thought, ‘I’m having that!’ and so began the new love.
It all started gradually and there was that initial feeling on day one of how easy it was all going to be, whizzing around on a super slick road bike, defying gravity on the many hills surrounding Newquay, effortlessly speeding along the flat, smooth tarmac. Reality kicked in on the first climb of any note coming out of Crantock village 3 miles outside Newquay. Now, I knew I was overweight, but not on the Boris Johnson or even David Cameron level, just a few extra kilos of middle aged lard, but I felt like Big Narstie on that first hill and it hit home that this was not going to be a breeze if I wanted something good out of this new, potential hobby.
As I started to realise, there is no feeling quite like the pain and sickening sensation that accompanies a ‘difficult’ hill climb, albeit on this first occasion it amounted to 300 metres at 7% gradient, hardly Porlock Weir, but a new experience for my body and not one it was loving. I stopped about 50 metres from the top, wheezing and panting like a pug on a walk. I am not one to ditch something too readily, but I was thinking seriously that maybe this was not for me at this age and, as experience has shown me with several would-be partners, this is all too common a thought and subsequent action. It is a very unpleasant feeling that you either embrace or decide to never experience again and I am so glad to this day that I decided I had to suffer it, if I was to head in a new and healthier direction.
I won’t lie and say it got better quickly. For some it will do. But as I learned it’s a combination of factors, all of which need to improve in order to start enjoying long climbs or merely just to get up them and not be a total wreck at the top. In my experience it boils down mainly to three elements: weight, lung capacity/condition and leg strength. In my case, the weight was not too bad, but not ideal, and in fact I think the other two factors are bigger issues, as you can get away with some extra pounds if the other bits are in order.
My main issue was probably my lung health, given my asthmatic past, and over the next couple of years this gradually improved beyond recognition as I coughed and wretched and expelled a lifetime of mucus wedged deep in my lung space; this condition was far more noticeable on morning rides and as I now know, much of this was also due to my being of a ‘Kapha’ nature, whereby I am inclined to be slow and laborious at that time of day and come to life later on. I now find no difference in a morning, afternoon or evening ride and attribute this primarily to my cycling but also to the kind of foods my nutritionist wife steered me onto, as part of improving my overall health.
So, several months into a riding regime of a few decent rides per week (20 odd miles) the weight was decreasing, the lungs improving, the limiting factor for me was now leg strength. Some of the climbs on my Dorset or Cornwall routes are fairly beastly and there were one or two I simply could not crack and others I only just managed by virtue of them thankfully ending just in time. Hardy’s monument climb from Martinstown took four attempts to crack, it’s wicked little final kick doing me over on the previous three occasions. The sheer length and final few hundred metres of increased gradient on Portesham hill got me four times before I finally got to grips with it and crested the beast in granny cog.
What I noticed was that, in the early days of hill climbing, I was relying on a mixture of legs and lungs in equal part to drive me up the hill and as the lungs were not up to it, they were at capacity and the legs were like jelly, usually before the climb ended. As time went on and the legs started to strengthen and the lungs improve, I was finding there was less demand on my lungs and the strength in my legs was taking the strain to a larger degree. It does take a while and many miles, but eventually the legs ‘strain harden’, new muscles appear where they weren’t before and bingo, you can start to take those hills on, without hyper-ventilating.
So, the early days of this new hobby can be soul destroying, with the very understandable feeling of the instant need to ditch the new venture and put the bike on ebay. Resist this urge, ride on, crack that hill at the nth attempt, lose weight, clear lungs, get toned legs and see parts of the countryside you would never fully ingest at this speed. It will open a new world and a new you !